Maeve Kelly: fighting for women and writing about them

Orange Horses is part of Kelly’s lifelong struggle to dispel male complacency and bring marginalised, female experience into the larger national consciousness

Orange Horses by Maeve Kelly represents a vital contribution to Irish writing as well as to the history of women in postwar Ireland. Photograph: Alan Hayes/ Arlen House

Orange Horses by Maeve Kelly represents a vital contribution to Irish writing as well as to the history of women in postwar Ireland. Photograph: Alan Hayes/ Arlen House

 

In her review of Orange Horses in 1991, the writer Aisling Maguire described Maeve Kelly as a “late bloomer in the literary field” owing to the fact that Kelly did not publish her first collection of short stories, A Life of Her Own (1976), until well into her forties.

Rather than any reflection on the evolution of Kelly’s talent, this late flowering points to the limited opportunities for writing and publication during her early lifetime and reveals much about the cultural climate in which she began her career. Though the number of published Irish women writers increased in the 1970s and early 1980s, only one in 10 Irish books printed during this period were authored by women, and this ratio drops to one in 50 when considering mainstream, non-women-oriented presses.

The relative paucity of women’s writing in these years is bound up with how women writers were received critically, and the subtle bias evident among some reviewers who tended to read women’s books in terms of the gender of the author. Evidence for this form of critical prejudice can be found in certain early responses to Kelly’s A Life of Her Own (all stories of which are contained in Orange Horses). Though the book received strong praise in a number of contemporary journals and newspapers, the critic JB Kilfeather was disparaging of the collection, arguing:

“Women do not have an easy time in Ireland but surely this writer is piling on the agony. ... there are the stories of sickness of girls and women. And miscarriages and loutish husbands. ... All of which I can well believe and even feel a certain degree of sympathy with the protagonists of the stories, but Maeve Kelly does go on rather much about it.”

Following a similar line, the writer Tom MacIntyre argues that though the book is articulating an important theme in addressing “the subject position of women in Ireland”, Kelly fails to express this topic adequately because “the melodramatic is an obdurate element in her sensibility” and she’s “not above piling it on”. Particularly insidious here is the way the argument openly acknowledges the difficulties facing Irish women while tacitly perpetuating the prejudices which degrade and delimit their daily lives. Facile phrases such as “piling on the agony” and “does go on rather much” complacently dismiss as histrionics and hyperbole the profound distress and trauma experienced by many women in Ireland at this time.

The 20 stories within Orange Horses are part of Kelly’s lifelong struggle to dispel such complacency and bring marginalised, particularly female, forms of experience into the larger national consciousness. It is a sign of Kelly’s deftness of touch as a writer that this larger intention does not overwhelm the integrity of her fictional worlds. Key to Kelly’s work is her scrupulous attentiveness to the strange complexities of human behaviour and her precision in rendering the intricate and conflicted inner lives of her characters.

In Orange Horses Kelly displays a remarkable palette of tones; she is capable of crafting scenes of gentle humour or chill tragedy as well as generating moments of lyrical intensity bordering on the visionary. The collection’s narratives also move across time and space: stories range from islands on the far west of Ireland to dingy student accommodation in the centre of London, from the War of Independence to the IRA letter-bombing campaign of England in the 1970s, and from the impoverished life of rural farmers to the heady world of successful young female writers and passionate artists.

In charting these worlds, Kelly pivots from a quality of deep humanity reminiscent of Mary Lavin to a pitch of bleak incisiveness evocative of the early work of Edna O’Brien. Yet as the critic Isabel Quigly argues: “Kelly’s voice is very much her own, neat, unflashy, often funny, often sad.”

Born in Ennis, Co Clare in 1930, Kelly was educated in Dundalk before moving to St Andrew’s Hospital in London to qualify in general nursing. Though she pursued postgraduate theatre nursing in Oxford, Kelly had to give up her profession when she contracted TB. After finishing her work in England, she subsequently returned to Clare where she lived and farmed with her husband Gerard O’Brien Kelly with whom she had two children, Joseph and Oona. Her first story to appear in print was in the Irish Press New Irish Writing page in 1971, and the following year another story won the Hennessy Literary Award.

After moving to Limerick, Kelly became involved in the Irish Women’s Movement and co-founded both the Limerick Federation of Women’s Organisations and the Limerick Refuge for Battered Wives in 1974. She was administrator of the latter organisation, now called Adapt House, for 15 years. Her sense of the vulnerability of victimised women can be gauged by a letter published by The Irish Times in 1975 in which she laments that victims of domestic abuse are “the most cruelly treated of our citizens” and that many of the husbands of beaten women “regard the legal system as upholding their right to abuse and neglect their wives as they see it”.

The lack of legal support for abused women was a function of the prevailing moral ideology of the political and ecclesiastical authorities, which tended not to interfere too deeply into what they considered the private domain of the family. In mid-century Ireland this led to a veil of silence around the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of women in the home, and it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that feminist activists such as Kelly brought these issues to the public attention and pushed for changes in the law.

Kelly’s ceaseless advocacy for the rights of women in this period is echoed and eloquently reaffirmed in her writing. In a review of recent fiction by Irish women in 1984, the writer Susan McKay noted of Kelly that she is “one of the writers of today who has made a consistent stand ‘against the conventions of her times’ and for the ‘enoblement of womankind’. She does so with a sense of comedy which characterises all of the most sure-footed of our writers.”

McKay’s commentary foregrounds two of Kelly’s greatest strengths as a writer: her technical mastery and her unfailing condemnation of what the writer Juanita Casey terms the “immaculate misconceptions” governing Irish women’s lives. Kelly, of course, is not unique in combining her skill as a writer with a thoroughgoing feminism and is one among a number of Irish writers whose output led to progressive and profound changes to the predicament of Irish women in the last 50 years.

What makes her career more unusual, however, is the manner in which she combined writing with political activism and her equal commitment to both activities; Kelly not only brought new social problems to the franchise of Irish fiction, she doggedly and pragmatically campaigned for their amelioration. Across half a century, she has tenaciously fought for those who have been silenced, battered, bullied and abandoned. Orange Horses was fundamental to that fight and bears its scars. It is the culmination of Kelly’s achievement in short fiction and represents a vital contribution to Irish writing of the twentieth century as well as to the history of women in postwar Ireland.

Orange Horses is published by Tramp Press. A Last Loving: Collected Poems by Maeve Kelly was published earlier this year by Arlen House

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